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Making History on the Rocks

Summer Days on the James River

From shipping and hydropower to fishing, boating, and bathing (yes, the traditional kind!), early life in Richmond revolved around the James River.

Although the river was the primary reason for the city’s founding, by the mid-twentieth century, it had become nearly completely off-limits to Richmonders. Sewage and industry had polluted the waters of the James so badly, few people even wanted access.

Compounding this problem, its banks were all privately owned and/or bound by railroads. This meant that the brave souls willing to touch the water had to take on the additional risk of trespassing to do so. In an effort to open up the river to the public, Richmond City Council approved what was called a scenic expressway on the south bank in 1964. In response, homeowners, activists and nature-lovers banded together in opposition.

In the end, the scenic expressway proved too expensive to build, and the momentum of the opposition shifted, then intensified into a campaign to clean up the river and make it accessible as a public park. Through land donations and purchases made possible by federal and state grants, in addition to negotiations with the Southern Railway Company, the city designated the southern bank between the Lee and Huguenot Bridges – as well as a series of small islands in between – as a public park in October of 1970.

Since then, the James River Park system has expanded to both banks to include 550 acres that stretch from the Huguenot Bridge to Ancarrow’s Landing in the east. In tandem with the park’s growth, getting pollution in check with increased regulation – including controls like the 1972 Clean Water Act – transformed the James River into a desirable destination again for Richmonders and for families across the country. Just ask anyone at Virginia Tourism!

Photo: Rich Crawford, Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection, The Valentine

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